Tamar, Bat-Yiftach and Judith. Hannah, Serakh bat Asher and Lilith.
These are the names of some of the most interesting women in the Jewish tradition. And yet, for many of us, these names aren’t nearly as familiar as Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.
There is the midrashic lore about Lilith, in some sources thought to have been the first wife of Adam, predating Eve, a woman with demon-like qualities and a “spiritual darkness.[i]” There is the devastating tale of Bat-Yiftach, the unnamed daughter of Jephthah, sacrificed by her own father after he makes an ill-conceived vow to the King of Ammon. In the Book of Judith—excluded from the Hebrew Bible but featuring a fascinating tale of a Jewish female heroine—we learn of Judith’s unwavering loyalty to God, her destiny to be forever unwed and her acts of extraordinary courage to save her people. Miriam was a prophetess and symbol of female strength in the Book of Exodus but was then exiled for leprosy, her service to God and her people rendered irrelevant. Hannah, one of the earliest stories of infertility, was barren and then blessed with children. Ruth and Naomi were ancient models of female solidarity. Deborah was a righteous judge and prophetess, and Yael fulfilled Deborah’s prophesy and is thus listed in the Book of Judges as yet another Jewish female heroine.
Many are the accounts of Jewish female biblical characters that struggled, took risks and made sacrifices for their families and their people. And yet, for so many Jews, these stories aren’t accessed and discussed, held up as mirrors to the struggles we face today, or used to help modern Jews process ancient dilemmas.
Alicia Jo Rabins is trying to change all that. “The outside nature of these characters, and the Torah’s respect for these characters makes for a powerful combination,” Rabins remarks when discussing her immersion into the narratives. “There is something very relatable about these stories. We think that our problems today are really modern problems, but at the root, they’re age-old, universal problems.”
Rabins is speaking both explicitly—about the modern-day problems of women’s rights, infertility, failed marriage, illness and estrangement—and implicitly, about what it means to be human, and how these stories can soften the blow of our journey down life’s path. “I’m particularly interested in how the present moment intersects with ancient traditions and wisdom,” she explains. “Where the most mundane aspects of daily life touch the more transcendent and spiritual aspects, and how they’re all related and linked.”
It is precisely this sort of link—how the spiritual informs the mundane, and vice versa—that inspires Rabins’ latest project, a curriculum titled “The Complicated Lives of Biblical Women.” Supported by a grant from The Covenant Foundation, her curriculum will complement a collection of songs Rabins has written, composed and recorded with her band, Girls in Trouble. On the surface, the songs and lessons are about these women in the Torah. But Rabins’ deeper focus is on “the emotional connection we can make to our foundational stories, and how that connection functions differently than other forms of text study.” We know the power texts have to move us, unite us, inspire us, and keep us connected to tradition. But unless the texts are continuously re-imagined, they can’t provide the intellectual, cultural and emotional framework for a changing community.
This is where Rabins’ work comes in. A musician, a poet, a performer and a Torah scholar, Rabins is hesitant to define herself as one any more than another. “I feel like I’m essentially all of those things, and they’re all in flux,” she says. The common denominator, however, is art. All of Rabins’ proverbial “hats” are artistic ones, and in this way, she is performing her own reinvention of the sacred. “Art meets us where we are,” she explains. “Using visual art and music and literature, contextualizing midrash as a Jewish art form and looking at the stories of these women is a powerful way to reach those adults who grew up with a sense of not being able to identify with Torah values.”
Part of the challenge for many educators who seek to convey such values to their students is that, as Rabins puts it, so many of us have only a “pediatric” understanding of Judaism. “For many adults, our Jewish education ended in our teens,” Rabins explains. “And we don’t necessarily encounter stories like Tamar’s.” During the Bar and Bat Mitzvah lessons she teaches through her company Personal Torah, Rabins has worked with young Jewish teens faced with challenging portions like that of the Sotah, the accused adulteress from the Book of Numbers. She thus has experienced firsthand the value of introducing budding adults to some of the lesser known texts. In the liner notes to her song “Secrets/You’re Always Watching,” from Volume I of Girls in Trouble, Rabins writes, “I’ve taught three Bat Mitzvah students who have been assigned this portion. It’s been humbling and poignant to experience this story with twelve-year-old girls being brought into their tradition. I was thinking of each of them when I wrote this song.”
Just as toddlers learning the alphabet are more apt to recall letters if they learn a song about them, so, too, can adults more readily understand and accept certain lessons of our tradition if they are presented in an accessible way. “Part of the power of using the arts is that text can be hard to access or require more guidance, but anyone can look at a painting of Judith [or listen to a song about her] and experience its impact… regardless of age,” Rabins asserts. “I think part of my goal for this curriculum—which will include both music and art—is that it be engaging for a wide range of learners. The curriculum will be scalable, geared toward teens through adults, but in the right hands, it could even be used for younger ages.”
Rabins’ curriculum is intended to be trans-denominational. Rather than focus on God, the lessons will look at the biblical stories from a woman’s point of view, so that God becomes another character in the story. The first two Girls in Trouble records contain ten songs each, and the curriculum will have a section focusing on each. In identifying new biblical women to profile, Rabins says she tries to “locate moments that feel sensitive and interesting, and find something that I can legitimately connect to.”Her third album, currently being recorded, will include songs about Queen Vashti, the daughters of Tzelofchad, Hagar, Noah’s wife and others. Indeed, the stories of each of those legendary women are rich enough to fill hundreds of albums and lesson plans.
Despite the scope of her endeavor, Rabins remains committed to her inspiration for the project. “I am someone who loves these texts,” she says, “and I want to bring that out in my teaching and curriculum writing. I want to use these texts to help us feel less alone, to energize us, to look at these characters not as representative of despair and darkness, but rather, with companionship and love.”
For some, it might be a stretch to feel love for a biblical character. And yet, Rabin’s lyrics reflect her own affection and empathy for these women. In listening to her songs, one can understand how stories at once ancient and perhaps inaccessible can be reinvented to draw one in and make one feel connected.
In her song “Emeralds and Microscopes,” which imagines Rebecca singing to Sarah, Rabins writes:
“You are welcome to visit me
I live where you used to be.
I will leave the door unlocked
Come inside and let me say your name.”
It is this process of listening to and speaking the names of these women which roots one deeply in tradition, adding layers of meaning to a text that might otherwise have been overlooked or left unexplored. Rabins’ art invites us to visit and revisit these stories, to hear them and sing them and muse on them, to see these women as trusted guides, as beloved friends, and to let them teach us and comfort us, as we go on our way.
“There are people out there who are educating their hearts as we speak. They’re getting on with the work, they’re loving their kids, they’re loving their students, they’re loving their communities. We must retrain our vision toward those people—we must develop eyes to see and ears to hear where that love is already happening—that is worth our energy and our care and our time, to tend that love, to show that love ourselves.”
—Krista Tippett, Founder and CEO, The On Being Project
“There are just two outcomes that really matter: First, that students feel Judaism is the fertile ground in which they get nurtured to grow, and second, that they find Judaism joyful.” Rabbi Joy Levitt, Executive Director, JCC Manhattan
"Civil discourse requires us to listen generously and to act as though—and to really believe—we could be open to persuasion. We each may think: 'I did not cause this situation, I am not to blame.' Yet we each have the capacity to help society turn the corner, if we honestly ask what went wrong and what we can do about it."
- Martha Minow, the 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University and Joseph William Singer, Bussey Professor of Law, Harvard University
The Wow Metric of Success: Jewish Life in Bloom on the Farm: Spring has arrived, and the Jewish community is busy planting with purpose. In Vaughan, Ontario, the yellow coltsfoot and purple-blue scilla are just starting to flower at the Kavanah Garden, a half acre community garden that’s part of Shoresh, the Canadian-based Jewish environmental organization that includes the Kavanah Garden and Bela Farm. Last Sunday, on “Yom Manual Labor” volunteers gathered to turn the soil, plant seeds, paint outdoor tables and participate in construction projects with the Shoresh team, preparing the garden for growing season.
“Our Jewish community is only as strong as its ability to include all members in the fabric of Jewish life. Doing so helps each of us recognize the unique strengths we all bring to the Jewish community, and that community cannot possibly be complete until we actively and intentionally welcome each other.”
-Meredith Englander Polsky, 2017 Covenant Award Recipient, Director of Institutes and Training, Matan, and Developmental Support Coordinator, Temple Beth Ami Nursery School
“From all of my teachers, I have grown wise.” Psalms 119:99. Framing Jewish Education, a project of The Jewish Lens and supported by The Covenant Foundation, was created to engage teachers, students, and families in conversation about the value of Jewish education and to illustrate the power of great teaching and learning via a curriculum based on visual literacy and text.
“For me, study is a divine and daily imperative; I study a page of Talmud daily so that I am not only teaching. My teaching is constantly being fed by my learning.” —Erica Brown Associate Professor, George Washington School of Education and Human Development. Director, Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership, 2009 Covenant Award Recipient
The Covenant Classroom means something different to every educator but common goals are to motivate, engage and be inclusive of all learners. In this volume, we’ve collected an array of Teachings on Inspiration and Motivation in all areas of Education.
#ThankATeacher It has been twenty-five years since The Covenant Foundation first opened its doors, and we continue to be humbled by extraordinary Jewish educators from across North America and across the spectrum of Jewish life who have devoted their careers and considerable talents to the field of Jewish education. Now, in celebration of a quarter-century-old tradition of honoring Jewish education and educators, and to kick off a year of public engagement around great teaching, we’re proud to share The Covenant Foundation voices app with you: a new digital way to give and share your gratitude.
“What would it look like if we bet on Jewish early childhood education for the long-term, as our tradition instructs? The task might seem large, but the reward, we know, is great (Pirkei Avot 2:15).”
“Countless leaders have been inspired by the story of the Jewish people leaving bondage in Egypt – those whose names we know, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and those whose names we never will know, whose every-day acts of kindness and resistance fuel social change. This story, our story, has become a cornerstone of modern social justice work.”
—Abby Levine, Director of The Jewish Social Justice Roundtable
This is how I see a “Covenant Classroom”: a place where challenging topics are passionately discussed; a place where complex ancient texts are grappled with; a place in which self- esteem grows, and motivation to learn increases exponentially because of it. An environment in which each Jewish soul is given the confidence to continue the eternal search for meaning.”
—Dr. Sandra Ostrowicz Lilienthal, Curriculum Developer and Instructor at The Rose and Jack Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education of Broward County and 2015 Covenant Award Recipient
“When powerful, new approaches to learning are introduced through digital tools, meaningful disruptions occur along the way… When this happens, new approaches which previously seemed inaccessible, are suddenly within reach.”
—Barry Joseph, Associate Director for Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives, American Museum of Natural History
“The future of Jewish teen engagement can in fact be found in 3D printers, and in text-people, and in service, and outdoor education, and in anything that brings teens into contact with authentic learning experiences and passionate, caring, knowledgeable educators.”
—Charlie Schwartz, Senior Jewish Educator, Director, BIMA & Genesis, Brandeis High School Programs
Portal seems like a particularly apt metaphor for entry points into Jewish life and learning because ultimately we want those experiences to be deeply experiential and transformative. We also want them to be accessible. A portal has no toll; passage is free. At the same time, a portal is particularistic, not a generic entrance. It conveys a sense of magic, ritual, and power. Similarly, we want to convey that Jewish life is rich, layered, and meaningful beyond what is immediately apparent. We want the encounter with Jewish life to take you on a journey that is profound and surprising. And, given that each of us may enter through the same portal but have a completely different experience of what is on the other "side," the possibilities are endless.
— Judith Rosenbaum, Executive Director, The Jewish Women’s Archive
"We need a new kind of creativity in the classroom that’s going to reach Jewish kids… If a teacher is imaginative, he or she is going to connect to students’ hearts and souls.”
—Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary, Board Member, The Covenant Foundation.
"There are four types of students... The sponge absorbs everything. The funnel brings in on one side lets it out the other. The strainer lets out the wine and retains the lees. The sieve lets out the flour dust and retains the fine flour." —Pirkei Avot 5:15
"There’s a misconception that a venture must depend on large grants from big donors. It makes more sense and it’s more sustainable to test out an idea, and see whether it has the opportunity to make an impact on people’s lives."
— Ariel Beery, founder, PresenTense
I think [creating new Jewish texts] is a really good description of what we’re trying to do. These days we’re increasingly creating products that are intended to be shared on the web. We’ve felt and continue to feel that this medium, and virtual communication as a whole, is being under-tapped for its possibilities for making art.
— Reflections from Sam Ball on the New Jewish Filmmaker Project